‘This Is Our Ghost Dance.’ Standing Rock Sioux Will Continue Their Dakota Access Pipeline Battle

Despite a freezing winter, hundreds of activists and Native Americans hunker down in a sustained effort to block an oil pipeline next to the Standing Rock reservation.

by Bethania Palma, originally posted on December 21, 2016


For much of of 2016, protesters in Cannon Ball, North Dakota, have withstood tear gas, arrests, rubber bullets and severe weather while camped out in an isolated area that has become known as Oceti Sakowin Camp. While on its face, the encampments are demonstrations against an oil pipeline, some have called the battle between a Dallas-based oil company and the Standing Rock Sioux a larger civil rights movement for Native Americans — a comparison bolstered by law enforcement’s use of water cannons on protesters in late November 2016.

Roughly a thousand protesters remain at the camps as of December 2016, according to Loreal Black Shawl, a U.S. Army veteran and Sioux activist who is still on site. While the Army Corps denied the pipeline company, Energy Transfer Partners (ETS), the easement it needed to drill under embattled Lake Oahe, the company remains committed to the current route. Demonstrators remain convinced that ETS will push the pipeline through (protestors call it “the black snake). With the media cameras and fanfare now largely gone, they are committed as ever to stopping it, now pointing to a pipeline spill 150 miles away in Belle Fourche, where workers as of 15 December 2016 are working to clean up 176,400 gallons of spilled oil.

Black Shawl told us that protesters who remain at the camp site believe that ETS continues to illegally drill despite the Corps’ decision. ETS tells us they are continuing construction up to the very boundaries of Corps-controlled land, but they are not doing anything illegal. Vicki Granado, spokeswoman for Energy Transfer Partners, said:

[W]e will not begin to drill the crossing beneath Lake Oahe until we have the approval to do so, however, we can continue finalizing our preparations and mobilizing equipment right up to the boundary (but not crossing) of the land owned by the Corps. Any activities that are currently taking place are on private property for which we have all the proper permits and approval.

Granado told us the company has filed a lawsuit in response to the Corps’ decision and remains committed to the controversial crossing, pointing to a statement ETS released on 4 December 2016:

For more than three years now, Dakota Access Pipeline has done nothing but play by the rules. The Army Corps of Engineers agrees, and has said so publicly and in federal court filings. The Corps’ review process and its decisions have been ratified by two federal courts. The Army Corps confirmed this again today when it stated its “policy decision” does “not alter the Army’s position that the Corps’ prior reviews and actions have comported with legal requirements.” …

The White House’s directive today [4 December 2016] to the Corps for further delay is just the latest in a series of overt and transparent political actions by an administration which has abandoned the rule of law in favor of currying favor with a narrow and extreme political constituency.

Thus the saga of the Dakota Access Pipeline is far from over, despite a dramatic climax on 4 December 2016, when thousands of veterans arrived to support the Standing Rock Sioux. Few expected to see the showdown between an oil company and a Native American tribe end in a dramatic victory for the indigenous and their allies, but that is exactly what happened — at least, for the time being. It happened the day thousands of veterans descended on the protest site to support the tribe in a three-day event called Veterans Stand for Standing Rock.

On 4 December 2016, veterans organizers learned that their efforts had an effect. Perhaps the optics of riot police using force against uniformed U.S. soldiers in defense of an oil pipeline proved too disastrous to risk. Whatever the reasoning behind the Corps’ surprise decision, it was at least a major temporary win for Native Americans and environmental activists who had been putting their lives on the line since launching their demonstration in April 2016. And while Oceti Sakowin means the seven groups or “council fires” that together make up the Great Sioux Nation, the camp was inhabited by a diverse array of thousands.

The veterans’ action was initiated by activists Michael A. Wood, Jr., and Wes Clark, Jr., (son of CNN commentator General Wesley Clark). On 11 November 2016, Clark launched a record-setting GoFundMe campaign which would snowball into a muster of 4,500 veterans and draw more media attention than the protest had seen.

Wood said he never expected the campaign to grow as rapidly as it did — he though he would be able to cajole perhaps a few hundred veterans into showing. But in roughly two weeks, Veterans Stand for Standing Rock had amassed more than $1.1 million in donations and had 2,000 veterans signed up to go. Heightening the drama, the Army Corps announced in late November 2016 that demonstrators had to vacate the camp by 5 December or face arrest (a statement they later walked back).

Nothing about the event went as planned. Just hours after landing at the Bismarck, North Dakota airport on 4 December 2016, Wood received some unexpected news. He was sitting in the front seat of a rented Chevy Yukon, bantering with key volunteer and fellow Marine Corps veteran Anthony Diggs, when he abruptly announced, “We won.”

Wood had received a text message from the an Army Corps colonel informing him that an easement needed by the pipeline company to complete the project had been denied.

Although the early victory created euphoria, it presented a new challenge. The public was expecting a spectacle of thousands of unarmed, uniformed military veterans facing off with a militarized police force on behalf of Native Americans. Suddenly, the narrative shifted, and a standoff turned into a celebration. It also meant many of the preparations the group had made went out the window, Wood told us:

With the mission of support for the water protectors making a dramatic shift, the supplies of drones, cameras, satellite comms, gas masks, and protective gear was largely unusable.

Wood and Diggs spent most of the time that day picking up and delivering supplies to veteran rally points while trying to solve problems associated with a massive, hastily-planned event. Then they hit another snag: a surprise blizzard struck, starting the evening of 5 December 2016.

While Wood’s trouble-shooting efforts were severely hampered by a lack of telecommunication, the group had anticipated the poor signal in the area of the encampment and had purchased a satellite phone to compensate. But the blizzard knocked the phone out, Wood said:

The previous storm ruined our supply chain, delaying critical deliveries. The surprise blizzard [on 5 December 2016] meant that a bunch of veterans prepared physically and mentally to protect the water protectors, had to instantly shift into an emergency response team.

With roads shut down by police and many of our vehicles still lost in snow banks, over 50% of the buses from a $200,000 contract broke down or were severely damaged.

Vacated cars that slid off icy roads punctuated the landscape as authorities closed thoroughfares. Wood, along with hundreds of others, was temporarily stranded at the nearby Prairie Nights Casino and Resort in Fort Yates after the Yukon went into a snow ditch. He was unable to reach Clark, and due to a communications break-down, some arriving veterans had headed for the camp when they weren’t supposed to go there until 5 December, meaning when the blizzard hit, many were stranded outside when they shouldn’t have been there in the first place. The setbacks didn’t stop Wood and a host of volunteers, from medical doctors and nurses to drivers, from launching a massive rescue mission.

As drivers brought indoors vulnerable activists like the elderly and people suffering from hypothermia, they delivered supplies to the camp. Meanwhile, volunteer medics, nurses, and doctors all leapt into action.

All the while, Wood spent hours on the phone haggling with M&T Bank, which was holding the group’s funds, arguing to be allowed to exceed the daily spending cap:

They simply did not seem to care about what we were doing and the challanges of the blizzard. They were more concerned about adhering to their procedures of normal activity, and thus their system, kept blocking us at nearly every turn. And not just the banks …

It really felt as though everything conspired against us, yet somehow, the members of this group stepped up in keys ways, that I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to understand. We will formally recognize those individuals as soon as we can breathe.

Despite the large-scale emergency, there were no casualties, which Wood considers a victory:

If we judge objectively, by goals and outcomes, it was undeniably ridiculously effective and successful.

Shortly after the event’s conclusion, media stories began emerging that detailed elements of chaos, including anger at Clark over accusations he had abandoned the veterans, he told us:

What did people expect? I don’t have any legal authority over anyone that went up there. All I have is, I got a big mouth, that’s it. It got people to go up there. People upset about it, they have to realize, mission accomplished. I’m pretty thankful about the way stuff turned out because no one died or got arrested for any of our actions. Did a tent fall down? Yeah. Were people cold from it? Yeah. Were there people there to help them? Yeah.

Wood called the outcome a win despite the obstacles:

In the end, it was a resounding success. It may seem odd from the outside, but really getting 2,000 people up, and back, alive, in one-to-two weeks would have impressed me.

We managed to get 4,500 [veterans] up, got a victory, survived the worst blizzard I’ve ever seen, and all got home alive, never missing a meal, or getting into a single fight.

While Wood said that Clark has already parted ways with the newly-formed organization (which Wood has called Veterans Stand), Black Shawl and dozens of veterans have remained at the campsite to help clean up messes left behind from the event, replenish resources and maintain calm. Wood is in sole control of the money raised from the GoFundMe account and said it is being used to refund the expenses of veterans who traveled to North Dakota, launch a 501(c)4 organization for similar actions and provide funding for veterans that remain at the site.

Law enforcement actions motivated veterans

Veterans who traveled to Standing Rock came from all over the country, their motivations included environmental and civil rights concerns. Many were Native American and felt the need to support the Sioux. Many also pointed to widely-seen images of protesters sprayed by water cannons in freezing weather, and attacked by security guards and their dogs. Reports of mistreatment, including placing arrested demonstrators in holding cages meant for animals also infuriated many.

Rob Keller, spokesman for the Morton County Sheriff’s Department, told us that police responded to protesters appropriately under difficult circumstances:

It is recognized that officers are expected to make split-second decisions and that the amount of an officer’s time available to evaluate and respond to changing circumstances may impact his/her decision.  While various degrees of force exist, each officer is expected to use only that degree of force which is reasonable under the circumstances to successfully accomplish the legitimate law enforcement purpose in accordance with this policy.

It is recognized however, that circumstances may arise in which officers reasonably believe that it is impractical or ineffective to use any of the standard tools, weapons and/or methods provided by the Department.  Officers may find it more effective or practical to improvise their response to rapidly unfolding conditions they are confronting.  In such circumstances, the use of any tool, method or weapon of opportunity must nonetheless be objectively reasonable and utilized only to the degree reasonably necessary to accomplish a legitimate law enforcement purpose.

Keller said police used water on protesters, despite freezing temperatures, “to keep distance between officers and the criminal agitators, and to put out fires set by the agitators.  It’s an alternative to less lethal and chemical munitions.” Protesters maintain that there were no fires the night water was used, pointing to aerial drone footage that doesn’t seem to show any flames:

Phil Little Thunder, 58, told us he was detained on 27 October 2016, the day that 141 protesters were arrested during a demonstration. While authorities told media that protesters were violent, Little Thunder said he was praying with elders when he was taken into custody and placed in what he called a dog kennel, a cage with no seats and a cement floor. He said he was at a tribal council meeting when he saw live footage of police cracking down on people at the camp and decided to go in order to show support.

When he got there, Little Thunder formed a prayer circle with some elders and younger people, and that is when he saw authorities approaching the group:

They shot off tear gas, pepper spray and I could smell it, and that thing [acoustic device] was making noise and it hurt my ears. Next thing I knew some guard was trying to pull me away and I hollered and said, ‘I’m praying with my auntie.’ A guy behind him said, ‘Keep moving, keep moving.’ Another prayer circle formed away from the highway, they were all sitting down on the ground, and they were trying to take them away too.

Little Thunder said police put him in ziptie plastic cuffs and forced him to drop ceremonial pieces he was holding:

My drum was sitting on the ground, my staff and my eagle head stick were in my right hand. They looked like they were gonna club me so I had to let go. They handcuffed me and led me away.

I think they segregated us as elders, young people, women, foreigners. I sat with the elders. They transported us to Morton County Sheriff’s Department, to an underground parking ramp, took us inside to dog kennels. They were putting 15 of us in each one, no chairs, just hard cement.

Keller didn’t directly address whether the holding area used was meant for animals but did say the holding areas were temporary and meant to deal with a mass arrest resulting in detention beyond the county’s ability to house inmates:

The temporary housing units have been inspected and approved by the ND Department of Corrections which has oversight over all county correctional centers in [North Dakota].  While there they have access to bathroom facilities, meals and drinking water. If any medical situations arise they are addressed by a medical or nursing staff on site.  Morton County Correctional Center has room for only 42 inmates and during a mass arrest arrangements have been made to transport to other jails. When a person is arrested and arrives at the jail, trained staff conduct a visual assessment, are patted down when they are admitted and all items and property are collected and placed in a bag which is returned when they leave.

Little Thunder is facing two misdemeanor counts. The eagle head stick, he said, is a staff capped with an unembalmed eagle’s head. It is a family heirloom and religious ceremonial piece that was passed down to him. He doesn’t know exactly how old it is, but it is “very old,” and not replaceable. Here he can be seen about to do a ceremonial dance using a spear in substitution for the eagle head stick, since he has not been able to recover it:

Little Thunder said he wasn’t able to see what happened to it when he was taken from the protest site because he had tear gas in his eyes. He can be seen dancing here in an inter-tribal ceremony in which Native Americans welcomed people from all backgrounds to participate:

Little Thunder is only one of hundreds who have been arrested in the course of the demonstrations against the pipeline. Others have faced serious consequences as well.

Sophia Wilansky, a 21-year-old activist from New York, nearly lost her left forearm on 20 November 2016, when she says a Morton County Sheriff’s deputy threw a concussion grenade directly at her which exploded on contact. Gruesome pictures circulated online show Wilansky seated in a car with her eyes closed, the bone and muscle to her arm exposed. The cause of her injury is a point of contention with law enforcement. Police maintain she was injured by an “improvised explosive device” constructed by protesters. Wilansky and her father, Wayne Wilansky, point out that none of her clothes or other body parts have evidence of burns or charring associated with an incendiary, and Wayne also said surgeons found shrapnel in his daughter’s arm. Keller reported that the North Dakota Bureau of Crime Investigation and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms are investigating that incident.

Priceless cultural sites and resources at stake

What’s at stake for the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and the Sioux nation overall are often described with phrases that media reports condense for brevity’s sake: sacred sites, drinking water, and the honoring of a treaty. Buried behind those words are centuries-old patterns of broken promises and crushing losses for tribes. The sites at risk hold keys to Sioux cultural and spiritual survival. Religious landmarks spread across the landscape play into the personal and spiritual framework for Sioux people.

Tim Mentz, a Sioux historical consultant, filed a court statement in support of an emergency injunction against the pipeline in September 2016, in which he explained in detail why the sites are priceless and irreplaceable. In essence, they have been used by families for generations, linking the past to the future, and enabling spiritual completion for individuals and the tribe as a whole. In constitutional terms, they allow the tribe the freedom to practice their religion. He described finding in the pipeline’s path stone ring landmarks that the untrained, non-native eye may easily miss, but which hold centuries of family history and spiritual meaning for Sioux people:

From the start of their life, boys had to stand and fast in one of these stone rings or wa hocho’ka to receive direction in their future roles as young men, within their band, and within their life in general. As men advanced in their life ways, society membership was decided by an individual’s daily action and his spiritual commitment to himself, his family, his society and people. The stone circle he once stood in alone, as an individual, might one day later be attached to a relative, society member, leader or clan’s vision/fasting ring. If spiritually directed, additional rings, arcs, stone effigies or alignments were added on to the initial ring. Medicine bundles were also created only at these stone feature sites and were based off of gifts that were given to the medicine people by the Grandfathers. When a man died, his wa hocho’ka was also his final grave site; his na gi’ (spirit) returned to the place that had helped him commit to the course of life chosen for him and in so doing, he was again helped on his final journey to meet the grandfathers. He was either physically brought to his stone ring or his spirit was kept and returned to this site generally marked by or referenced as a stone cairn. These attributes cannot be mitigated or minimized to the satisfaction of today’s development in the Great Plains. It’s the members of Oceti Sakowin (Sioux people) that end up paying the ultimate price from this destructive development …

Sadly, our Oyate (people) cannot visit most of these places of power today. Yet a connection to the stone features remains within the sacred bundles derived from these places. Since many care takers of generational family bundles exist, it is important for bundle keepers to remain connected to these stone features.

Unfortunately, when any type of development or project destroys a sacred stone ring or feature today, it inadvertently destroys the power of any sacred bundle connected to that place and ultimately severs the tie between the Oyate and the landforms where our spiritual power resides, this is an intangible adverse effect. There is no “fix” in mitigation for these types of sites. Destruction of these sites will eventually destroy generations of family connections to these areas of spiritual power that we still have knowledge of where they are located and how they still can be used, but are not there anymore. For this reason, steps taken to preserve sites like this are important to the survival and recovery of our spiritual traditions for our people, as these sites still retain the ability to mend our people, as prophesied by our spiritual advisors. But the sites need to remain in their place undisturbed.

Mentz noted while in the field, he had the opportunity to observe surveyors from an archaeology firm hired by the pipeline company, and watched them breeze by cultural landmarks without recording them. He also wrote that non-Native archaeologist often fail to grasp on even a basic level the significance of Native American sites, for example, mistaking spiritual stone rings mentioned above as “tipi rings,” a term he called completely meaningless. He pleaded with the court on a personal level, explaining why destruction of such sites is tantamount to the destruction of Sioux spirituality and culture:

It’s imperative that the current action of DAPL conducting construction at such locations should be stopped. This really harms me as a Lakota/Dakota person who protects these areas. My whole life was for one purpose, to protect and preserve these areas for the children and grandchildren and the ones yet unborn, that the prophesy be fulfilled that our seventh generation will walk back to these sites to save the Nation and our spiritual way of life.

Mentz recorded a number of significant markers, including burial sites, which he submitted as an exhibit for the court. Shortly after that, said anthropologist Tom King, the pipeline company sent bulldozers over the Labor Day weekend to destroy the sites. King called the Dakota Access pipeline case “egregious”:

[Mentz] files that report with the court and within two days the company’s out there bulldozing the sites. That’s when you had the security forces, the attack dogs — Amy Goodman covered it. The company says, ‘oh well, it’s just part of our ordinary operations, we always sbulldoze on Labor Day weekend.’ That violated another piece of NEPA that the Corps has been unwilling to investigate. It is such an egregious case.

As King mentioned, Democracy Now! journalist Amy Goodman was reporting on site and recorded footage of the bulldozers in action, along with security personnel spraying protesters with Mace and siccing attack dogs on them:

Section 106 of NEPA, or the National Environmental Policy Act, requires that agencies consider historical and culturally-significant sites before proceeding with construction that would place them at risk. If the destruction of such sites is a potential outcome of a project, an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) must be completed before proceeding.

While the Corps has, as of December 2016, stopped the pipeline and required the energy company complete an EIS, King said that scrutiny should have taken place much earlier in the process; as it stands, the 1,172-mile pipeline is now mostly complete:

They should have looked at the impacts of the pipeline early on and figured out whether they would put it in and if so, how and where. They wanted to fast track it and that’s what they’ve done. The environmental and historical preservation laws are not difficult. They’ve become difficult because we’ve laden them with silly stuff, but they basically say, ‘look before you leap.’ That’s a pretty simple premise, but it’s one that companies like Energy Transfer Partners really don’t want to pay attention to, and the Corps let them get away with it.

Ironically, Lake Oahe (which the tribe and ETS are at loggerheads over) and the current geography of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation, are the result of centuries of land taking and flooding of tribal lands by U.S. government entities, including the Army Corps. Hundreds of thousands of acres of tribal land were flooded, and hundreds of Native American families were forced off fertile, ancestral lands as a result of the 1944 Pick-Sloan Plan for flood control of the Missouri River.

According to a research paper (“Impacts of the Army Corps of Engineers’ PickSloan Program on the Indian Tribes of the Missouri River Basin”) by attorney Peter Capossela, numerous Sioux groups, including the Standing Rock community, were disastrously affected:

The Pick-Sloan Plan devastated the Indian Reservations along the Missouri River. The large dams on the Missouri River main stem inundated over 356,000 acres of Tribal land in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The wooded Missouri River riparian bottomlands—the aboriginal homeland of the region’s tribes—were completely destroyed. Entire tribal communities were relocated to new town sites, situated on the barren plains above the river valley. These areas lacked the rich riparian resources of the tribes’ aboriginal homelands.

The new town sites lacked infrastructure, such as roads, water systems, schools and community facilities. The statutes authorizing the taking of Reservation lands required the Corps of Engineers to replace the infrastructure, but the Corps failed to do so. This exacerbated the long term adverse effects on the tribes.

While a 1851 treaty at Fort Laramie granted the Sioux a large swath of land west of the Missouri, the ever-shrinking of that mileage continues to be a source of bitterness that has been raised in the pipeline dispute, with Standing Rock Sioux chairman Dave Archambault II telling the Washington Post that:

This government honors international treaties like they are the Holy Grail, but within our own homeland, they find ways to break them.

The fact that the U.S. Constitution names treaties as the “supreme law of the land” has not been lost on members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, who time and again blasted the government for failing to honor those made with Native American nations within its own borders.

Water is Life

Among Native and non-native demonstrators alike at Standing Rock, the phrase Mni Wiconi is a constant refrain. It means, “water is life,” and its prevalence at Standing Rock reflects the fact that the pipeline is meant to carry 570,000 barrels a day of shale oil from North Dakota to Illinois, crossing under the Missouri River upstream of the Standing Rock reservation’s water facilities.

A previous pipeline route would have placed it north of Bismarck, the North Dakota capital that is upstream from the reservation. That route was rejected, in part, because of the threat to Bismarck’s water supply — a point that has raised the ire of opponents:

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers evaluated the Bismarck route and concluded it was not a viable option for many reasons. One reason mentioned in the agency’s environmental assessment is the proximity to wellhead source water protection areas that are avoided to protect municipal water supply wells.

In addition, the Bismarck route would have been 11 miles longer with more road crossings and waterbody and wetland crossings. It also would have been difficult to stay 500 or more feet away from homes, as required by the North Dakota Public Service Commission, the corps states.

The Bismarck route also would have crossed an area considered by federal pipeline regulators as a “high consequence area,” which is an area determined to have the most significant adverse consequences in the event of a pipeline spill.

Quiet as things may seem as of mid-December 2016 in Standing Rock, the fight is not over. Chase Iron Eyes called the demonstration “our Ghost Dance,” a movement that spread among Native Americans as they were pushed back by white settlers in the late 1800s. It gave people hope amid tragedy. Again, the Sioux stand on the brink of uncertainty, with a new administration set to take the White House and a president who has vocally supported the pipeline.

“Respect to all who’ve come, gone & returned,” Iron Eyes wrote. “For the first time in my life I feel like I have a hand in determining our destiny, we all do.”





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